Conversation with Jean Greer McCarthy
This week Liv’s has a Kitchen Table Conversation with Jean Greer McCarthy. Jean is the creator of the popular recovery blog, UnpickledBlog; former co-host of recovery podcast, The Bubble Hour and columnist for Addiction.com. She has been sober since 2011 and is located in Alberta, Canada.
Kitchen Table Conversation
Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed by Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, I’m a little in awe of how you have so bravely taken your recovery on and sought to help others through sharing your journey and proudly flying the flag of recovery. I’m sure my readers would agree how inspirational you are!
Liv: First off, I love the name of your blog, Unpickled. Why did you decide on that name?
Jean: I chose the name on my first day without alcohol, and I wasn’t ready to use the word “sober” just then. I felt like I was drowning in alcohol without ever really getting drunk, because my goal was to numb discomfort; I was quietly pickling my feelings. So if sober is the opposite of drunk, “UnPickled” meant the opposite of being constantly numb. I was also well aware of the cliche “a pickle can never be a cucumber again,” and I was embarking on something that would change me forever, yet never change me ‘back” to what I was before addiction. I liked the wry humour of the name; something that can and cannot be at the same time.
Liv: The tagline on your website is Recovery is Leadership, what does that mean?
Jean: When I quit drinking, I was very visible in my community as a business person and volunteer. I worked very hard to do everything right, to be good, to set the example. I had won a lot of awards and accolades for my efforts, and stayed in the public eye as a way to promote my business. My Linkedin profile has dozens of unsolicited endorsements for “leadership”.
I was very afraid that if people knew I am in recovery it would undermine my reputation as a leader of any sort. At first I was so scared that someone might find my blog that I stayed completely anonymous.
As time passed and I came to learn more about recovery, my perspective changed. I realized that recovery doesn’t undermine leadership, it personifies it. What is more exemplary than acknowledging a problem and dealing with it, not to mention helping others along the way? That’s why I say “Recovery is Leadership”.
The shame and stigma surrounding addiction and recovery keeps people stuck. If we have any hope of changing that, we have to let people see what recovery looks like and acknowledge it as a tremendous achievement worthy of pride.
Liv: I listened to Recovery Revolution’s podcast Since Right Now, in the episode 1542 (29 October 2015) where you talk of the barriers and ‘life circumstances’ that inhibited your motivation to go to AA; namely that you felt you didn’t fit the description of alcoholic, and, therefore, wouldn’t be accepted. How did you feel about your drinking to reach a point to make a change? And why do you feel that you didn’t fit into the stereotype alcoholic?
Jean: I knew that AA was a good program that worked well for a lot of people, but I was torn between feeling superior and inferior at the same time. We often hear that you have to hit rock bottom and become powerless – the first step of AA’s 12 Steps is admitting powerlessness over alcohol. Every time I thought about quitting I’d look at those 12 Steps and think, “Nope, I am not powerless. I can make it to 4 pm before I start drinking. No DUI, no family breakdown, no one complaining. I guess I am not bad enough yet so I can keep drinking.”
Still, I could see my pattern gaining momentum – I couldn’t moderate at all, I vowed every morning to take a break and caved on my way home from work. Finally I realized it was utterly ridiculous to keep drinking to rock bottom – I didn’t want to know what rock bottom looked like! I decided to grasp the dwindling power I had left and quit while I still had choices.
So, back to my understanding of AA and the Steps, I assumed that everyone in the rooms would have hit rock bottom themselves and that I wouldn’t fit in there at all (not true, by the way). I also assumed they would tell me I wasn’t broken enough to join, and I was very afraid of that because I knew in my soul that I was on a trajectory that could kill me if left unchecked. It is such a vulnerable time, it can be a small window of time when a person is ready to make that change. The last thing I wanted was to be poo-poo’d. Again, I was wrong about that – recovery meetings are full of people from all walks of life and with a variety of experiences who all have one thing in common – seeking healthy, happy lives without alcohol.
Another factor that kept me fearful of walking into the rooms was living in a smaller community and feeling very visible and vulnerable. I told myself, “I’ll only go if I have to!” My fear was a kind of a negative motivation to stay sober so I could protect my privacy. I hear this exact concern from a lot of readers and I encourage them to move past that. Everyone is in the same boat and newcomers are welcome and supported because everyone remembers how scared they were at first, too.
I was shocked to learn that there are several other abstinence-based recovery programs to choose from! I ordered material from all of them – including AA – and dug into learning.
Liv: You’ve spoken of attending an AA meeting, and whilst it the 12 steps weren’t for you, that you were able to make use of the resources, which did you make use of?
Jean: AA is a very introspective program. The steps help people look inside themselves to understand where their pain comes from. The process helps participants take ownership of all the old wounds, to set those wounds free, to talk about them and realize the sky doesn’t fall when long-guarded secrets are spoken out loud. That is powerful. The program is also about connecting with others who understand, and about giving service. That all makes great sense to me, so I found ways to incorporate those things into my own recovery.
I also used material from SMART Recovery, listening to their podcasts and scouring the website for reading material. I ordered manuals from LifeRing, to see how that process worked. There is so much available online – tons of great podcasts and blogs. I also love the work of William L. White, a recovery advocate whose website has amazing resources and insights. If I could recommend just one thing that makes the biggest difference, it would be talk to another person who is living in recovery.
Liv: You explained that you decided to approach recovery in a self-managed way; can you elaborate on that, specifically how you approached recovering and the tools you used?
Jean: I tackled it like any other project – a goal, a plan, a back-up plan, a means of accountability. I adopted new things as I learned them, and stayed open to self-discovery. I began with recovery-related reading material and programs, as well as self-help books and simple psychology basics. I went to a counsellor to peel back a few layers and process some of the anger I’d buried (I intend to continue therapy in the future – I like to take some breaks to see what bubbles up). I learned that helping others reinforces sobriety, and my blog has become a place for me to encourage and hopefully inspire others to shed their fear and move forward. I joined online forums, where there is so much to be learned! And eventually I got up the nerve to go to a yoga retreat in Mexico for sober women which was amazing. I have organized several sober meetups for members of the online groups I am involved in (because face-to-face interaction just can’t be replaced!), and whenever I travel I try and connect with a reader or online connection who lives in the area. I have had coffee chats with UnPickled readers and Bubble Hour listeners in all kinds of places – from Palm Springs to Rome!
Liv: As you know, the process of recovery reveals to us that alcohol or drugs were but a symptom of our problem; what did you uncover in your process of recovery?
Jean: The hardest part was accepting that I needed to change more than my drinking – I needed to rethink everything. That was a bit of a surprise, because I was under the impression that I was nearly perfect except for my drinking habits and that once I stopped, I would finally be fully perfect. (I hate admitting that. It sounds awful to me now!) The revelation came as I realized the drinking was the result of the way I had structured my life – the quest for perfection itself was part of the problem. I was never good enough, never happy with myself, and this caused a kind of heartache that needed constant comfort and numbing. So many women do this to themselves – it’s a modern epidemic.
Liv: I love this statement you make on your website when you talk about connection:
“To the readers of this blog who came looking for fellowship on their journey to recovery: I believe you will see yourself in me. I am just one of many faces of recovery, and if you ever recognize me in an airport or maybe even in my own hometown I hope you’ll say hello, tell me how we’re connected, and give me a hug. We’re in this together.”
How would you describe the benefits of that connection and knowledge that we’re not alone?
Jean: Many of us find that as our drinking problems escalate, we begin to isolate. It is common to feel that no one could ever understand, that if other people knew the truth we’d be humiliated, that the world would end. Then comes the sweet relief when someone says, “Me, too” and the weight of the world starts to lift. Connecting with other people in recovery supercharges the whole process. It also vaporizes the stigma and stereotypes because we quickly realize that addiction affects individuals from all walks of life, so we see others just like ourselves. Yes, there are some people in recovery who fit the hard-life stereotype, and there are also soccer moms and professionals and sweet old grandmas and debutantes and bikers — and we are somehow kindred spirits who want the same thing for each other: freedom.
Liv: I heard you explain the stages of change in relation to people entering recovery; how would you describe those changes, in relation to alcoholism and facing it?
Jean: I learned about something called “The Transtheoretical Model” for stages of change, which applies so well to recovery. Whenever we are considering change of any kind, we go through several stages. These include “Precontemplation” (unawareness of a problem); “Contemplation” (realizing the problem and the need to find a solution); “Preparation” (searching for solutions); “Action” (using the information found to enact change); and finally “Maintenance” (keeping it going long-term). I encounter a lot of people who are in the “Preparation” stage, because their question for insights leads them to my blog. Often, the encouragement and support people find in their online research – whether through my blog or the many many others – gives them the boost they need to get to the “Action” stage.
Liv: You have designed a logo for recovering alcoholics, UNRE, what does this stand for?
Jean: A designer friend and I looked at the words “UnPickled” and “Recovery” and realized that “Un” and “Re” perfectly captures the whole process of recovery – which is all about backing up and moving forward in new directions. Undo, redo, unlearn, relearn, understand, redirect. I created a cute little video that you can see on my blog to illustrate the concept, and I also like that it is a way to wear a kind of a secret code on a t-shirt or key chain without completely broadcasting one’s recovery. Everyone has something they could be working on to change positively – everyone needs a little “UN-RE” action in some area of their character.
Liv: You talked of your public persona and the barriers you had in place, as an avoidance strategy, what do you mean by that, in terms of avoiding yourself?
Jean: As a business person, I always had my desk and my title to keep me safely separated from others. As a performing songwriter (I have 2 cds on iTunes and the opening song on the Bubble Hour my single “I Own It”) I had my guitar and the stage to keep people at a safe distance, even while I sang deeply personal songs. I did a lot of public speaking and presentations – from behind a podium. Looking back, I made sure I was always involved in a monologue – talking to people in a way that didn’t allow them to talk back to me. There was always a meeting agenda or song lyric or speech note to keep me on track. I was also incredibly rigid about my appearance, because that was part of my armour as well. I was just so terrified of criticism, rejection, or failure. I stayed as busy as possible as a way to avoid introspection, because ironically the worst critic of all was the voice in my head.
Liv: I love how openly you talk of your intuition and self-acceptance; can you explain that journey and what are the key lessons you’ve learned?
Jean: This is a hard one for me, it is a work-in-progress and part of my long term “maintenance” depends on self-acceptance. I came to see what I was chasing a mirage by trying to attain perfection. I also had to accept that there is nothing I can do to avoid criticism or rejection – people are entitled to respond as they will. All I can control is what I do with that, and to my great relief the world does not end if I am not always perfect. It is very hard for me to just slow down and get in the moment, but that is where peace and self-acceptance is found. I do a lot of yoga, because following the instructions to breath in and do this, breath out and do that, hold this awkward pose for three more breaths, etc – it is hard to let your mind wander while all that is happening. It gets me in the moment, and by the time class is over I am calm and focused and feeling good.
Liv: As a [former] co-host of The Bubble Hour – to those of you who aren’t aware their purpose is a podcast ‘of sober women who are dedicated to breaking down the walls of stigma and denial surrounding the disease of alcoholism.’ – How would you describe the stigma attached to alcoholism in terms of its inhibition to those seeking help? And how does The Bubble Hour seek to break down that stigma, specifically?
Jean: A lot of people are like me – scared they won’t fit in at a recovery meeting. The Bubble Hour is like listening in on a group of people talking about their experiences before, during, and after their recovery. Hopefully, it helps people feel a little less afraid of what they’ll find if they reach out for real life support. There is a recovery campaign slogan that says, “By our silence, we let others define us.” I think that is the unintended consequence of anonymous programs – recovery stays in the shadows so all we see is what addiction looks like when it is out of control and can’t be hidden. That’s where the stigma comes from. Anonymity is important and has its place, but those who feel comfortable speaking out about their recovery do a great service by
showing the everyday, ordinary-ness of life after alcohol, and that is a tremendous source of hope for people who are struggling.
Liv: I’d like to touch on how blogging has been pivotal in your recovery. You very courageously started a blog on the first day of your sobriety; how would you say this has helped your recovery?
Jean: Blogging keeps me accountable and connected. If I post something that is off-base, people are kind enough to comment with the insights I need. If I learn something new, I can share it there and hopefully help someone else. I get a lot of email from people who are struggling, and I try to empower them with information and support. Sometimes I just follow the back and forth of strangers supporting one another in the comments section, and learn from their interactions. I never really understood what blogging was on the day I started UnPickled. I thought it was just a journal that not very many people would every find or read, but the notion that it was “out there” was the accountability I needed to get started. I had no idea that people sit down at their computers every day and search “how to quit drinking” – but they do and that is how they find me.
Liv: Finally, I love to ask all the recovery warriors that I interview – what are your top five recovery tips?
1.Quit drinking/using. It sounds obvious, but many people try to fix the problem without stopping. Abstinence is sooooo much easier than moderation – not that it is easy, mind you, but it is easier.
2. Make some connections for support. Real life support is ideal but at the very least reach out online and find some others who are in the same boat.
3. Understand that there are many pathways to recovery, so if you go to a meeting and find it isn’t for you that doesn’t mean you should abandon recovery. Try a different abstinence-based program – there are online meetings for most of them if the program isn’t offered in your local area.
4. Be prepared to change more than just your drinking habits. You may need to change other aspects about your life, your thinking, and your relationships in order to be successful in recovery. Don’t let that scare you though – the changes will lead you to a better way of doing
things that won’t require constant relief and numbing. That is the goal.
5. Self care, especially in the first few weeks. Pretend that you are your 12-year-old self – what nice little treats would you plan? You wouldn’t give a 12-year-old wine would you?! You’d watch movies, go do something fun, eat sweets, prepare a bubble bath and have new jammies and slippers. It takes some time to re-learn to enjoy life – there are so many great things that we forget about when all we wear are booze-goggles!
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